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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Blacksad. Juan Diaz Canales (Writer), Juanjo Guarnido (Art), Anthya Flores, Patricia Rivera (Translation). Dark Horse Books (2010)

Outstanding collection of stories about a brilliantly re-imagined pulp version of 1950's America. John Blacksad, a private investigator, becomes involved with the death of a former lover, a nasty outbreak of white supremacist activity and with the tangled politics of nuclear paranoia and anti-communism. The stories are sharp and crisp, the action is hard and furious, the reveals are brilliantly staged. The atmosphere is noir, nearly everyone is on the make or trying to be, wealth, power and greed drive the plots. The cast are superb, a collection of losers trying to be winners and winners trying to prevent anyone else from winning, a sprinkling of those trying to do the right thing, even if they are no longer sure what it is.
Initially the most striking thing about the stories is that the cast are all human shaped animals, this only serves to emphasise the humanity of the cast. They are not animals pretending to be humans, they are humans parading their animal possibilities.
The astonishing art by Juanjo Guarnido creates a large and expressive cast, rarely has body language been so eloquent, the facial expressions are a joy. The panels are full of details that serve to add depth to the story, they create a entirely convincing context for the actions of the cast.
The trappings of the pulp stories and the noir films are so easy to imitate that they verge on the meaningless, Juan Diaz Canales has captured the bruised romance that underlies the originals. The struggle not to be overwhelmed by the nihilism that florishs with overrunning greed is central, to believe that there is a point to trying to do the right thing. There is a savage price to be paid for this and it is extracted in full in these stories. Everyone is compromised in some way, how they respond to it is at the heart of their actions.
These are stories with a real heartbeat, they draw in the reader and make the reader care abbout the cast. The mysterious spark of creativity is buring brightly in this wonderful book, a triumph.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Trail of Blood. S.J. Rozan. Ebury Press (2010)

This is a very enjoyable and superbly structured crime story. Lydia Chin, a Chinese-American private investigator, is hired to locate some jewelry stolen in China and smuggled to the US. The items belonged to an European Jew who fled to Shanghai to escape the Nazis. As Lydia and her partner investigate the history of the family who owned the jewels and their whereabouts in New York, both stories twist and turn. The reveals are very well staged, the layering of the stories from the past and the present is done with sure, subtle skill and the conclusion is surprising and deeply satisfying.
S.J.Rozan has accomplished a considerable feat with this book, she has escaped the traditional restrictions of the genre and created a credible, optimistic, funny and tough female lead. Lydia Chin is very engaging, neither bitter nor battered, she is smart, fallible and open. Lydia has family concerns rather than family problems, is actually, genuinely friendly with a police officer and is stubbornly persistent. There is no shortage of unpleasant people in the book and the plot is steeped in violence and betrayal, the human element shines through.
The Chinese context to the story, both in pre-war Shanghai and New York's Chinatown is fruitfully woven into the story. The lasting power of traditional values and forms is explored in a very natural way, they are integral to the story. The history of the Jewish refugees to Shanghai is surprising and handled with considerable care, the dreadful impact of the war on Shanghai is revealed. The whole cast come to life with quiet assertiveness and the coils of the plot are sharpened strongly by their actions. A treat.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon. Roy William Neill (Director) Universal (1943)

An enjoyable adventure that picks up very considerably in the second half. Sherlock Holmes is involved in a plan to smuggle a scientist out of Switzerland and away from the the grasp of the Gestapo. The scientist, Dr. Tobel. has developed a bomb sight that is of great accuracy and therefore value to the Germans and the British. Dr Tobel makes plans to control the manufacture of the bomb sight and then is kidnapped. Sherlock Holmes has to rescue him from the grip of Professor James Moriarty, the action is great fun, the clues are clever and the resolution very satisfying.
The opening sections of the film are weighed down by the propaganda aspects to the story, they are too much to the foreground. After Dt Tobel(William Post Jr.) is kidnapped and Professor James Moriarty(Lionel Atwill) enters the story the film picks up greatly. The personal battle between Sherlock Holmes(Basil Rathbone) and Moriarty is made clear and this give the film a considerable tension and dramatic edge.
The use of the Dancing Men code is a fun aspect to the story and the action sequences are wonderfully melodramatic. Basil Rathbone is a excellent, he has the vigour and barely contained annoyance at the limitations of others captured nicely. Lionell Atwill is superb, his mixture of enjoyment of the challenge represented by Holmes and the desire to be rid of him make their scenes together crackle. The struggle between them is one where victory is proof of intellectual superiority. A very enjoyable film.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Witchfinder. In the Service of Angels. Mike Mignola (Writer), Ben Stenbeck (Art), Dave Stewart (Colours), Clem Robbins (Letters) Dark Horse (2010)

A superb adventure story about Queen Victoria's special agent fighting the occult, Sir Edward Grey. After a number of very suspicious deaths, Edward Grey learns of an expedition to Egypt which uncovered a lost city and a odd set of bones. The members of the expedition were the first victims of a creature which returned to England with them, it becomes increasingly more murderous as Grey attempts to track, trap and kill it. The story is superbly well done, the reveals are very well paced, the cast are very engaging and the conclusion satisfyingly grim.
Mike Mignola has taken a background character from his Hellboy stories and given him a story of his own. The same care and craft that goes into the Hellboy stories is evident here. The central plot is carefully garnished with a wonderful cast and array of ideas, suggestions and lurking conspiracies. These give the story a strong context and sense of time before and after the action described in the story. Edward Grey is a melancholy character, competent yet somewhat out of his depth and aware of it. He moves through the layers of London without ever really fitting in anywhere, this awkwardness opens up the story and allows the human element never be dominated by the supernatural.
Ben Stenbeck's art is a joy, it is full of suggestion, shadows and corners abound where there is probably something going on. London, high and low is given a nice solidity that creates a vivid stage for the supernatural activities. The cast are drawn with great vigour and animation. They fill their spaces with spirit and manage to be ordinary and vivid at the same time. Dave Stewart uses a muted palette of colours to extraordinary effect, the colours rest within the art to provide additional depth and force. Clem Robbins lettering manages to be invisible and decorative at the same time, it blends in with the rest of the book and is unerringly easy to read. This is a great comic, produced by a hugely talented team of creators, an undiluted pleasure.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Niels Arden Oplev (Director). Momentum Pictures 2010

A gripping and superbly acted thriller that has a light varnish of social and political advocacy over a brutally enjoyable plot. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist(Michael Nyqvist) is asked to investigate the decades old disappearance of the member of a powerful industrial dynasty. He encounters Lisbeth Salander(Noomi Rapace) a semi-socialised hacker and they continue the investigation together. The story develops nicely with horrific secrets and crimes being uncovered. The action is superbly staged, the reveals are cleverly done and the plot resolved neatly.
This film is saturated with sexual violence, there are three explicit rape scenes which are far more concerned with force and power than sex, the plot is explicitly concerned with sexual violence. It does lack the subtle victimisation of the female cast that so often accompanies such violence, the female cast are notably independent and capable.
This really is two stories loosely tied together, there is the investigation of the disappearance and the murderous secrets that lie behind it. This is a grimly efficient thriller that makes the most of a not terribly original plot with superb acting, terrific pacing and brilliantly engineered tension. The second story is that of Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Rapace is astonishing as the she shows the carefully guarded venerability and steely strength of the character. The most significant gap in the film is the link between both stories, it is explicitly raised and then ignored in the film.
What the film lacks in cohesion it more than makes up for in engaging drama, vivid storytelling and a simmering rage at the abuse of power. Strongly recommended.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Living on a Prayer. Sheila Quigley. Arrow Books. (2006)

This is a very enjoyable crime story with a savagely bleak undertow. A teenager is found hanging at a local scenic spot, the assumption is suicide. Neither the boy's mother nor Detective Inspector Lorraine Hunt are convinced, if for very different reasons. Richard's friends, a group of teenagers, each one with significant family problems appear to know considerably more than they are willing to say. A man is brutally assaulted and a group called the Blessing Guides have established themselves in the area. The story moves quietly, the extensive cast is given plenty of space to move, there is as much attention given to the lives of the cast as to the action. The reveals are cleverly staged, the action is sharp and nasty, it arises very naturally from the actions and personalities of the cast.
Sheila Quigley has developed a considerable reoccurring cast and uses them very well to frame the central plot. The people living in the Salthills estate, few working , most on some form of benefit are all involved to some extent with marginally legal or simply illegal activities in an effort to have enough to raise their families. Sheila Quigley clearly has both great affection and sympathy for them, without ever being blind to their weaknesses. This gives the story a tremendous context, the plot has real and visible consequences and implications for the cast.
One of the most striking aspects to the story is the way that the astonishingly grim plot is carefully covered by the warmth of the writing. The villains are credible in their callous greed and callous manipulation of wounded teenagers. They depth of their brutality is revealed clearly, without any hyperbole. It sneaks up on the reader making the full realisation of what is going on all the more effective.
The central romance is also handled with flair and quiet humour, there are enough complications to generate tension and the writing is good enough to make it enjoyable rather than cringe inducing. A gripping read.